Chi Chi Valenti took back the night

A true goddess has the power of creation in her fingertips – able to conjure meaning and joy from the sludgy soup of life. One such deity is Chi Chi Valenti, writer, journalist, poet, performer. Her mind has willed into existence thousands of hours of reality substitutes, showing clubland how much artistry you can pour into a night out – not just music, lights and people, but art, poetry, theatre, costumes, choreography, drag, politics, comedy, theatre and cultural commentary. Guided by the confrontational philosophies of Situationism, and most often in partnership with her husband, DJ Johnny Dynell, Chi Chi brought us some of the most hilariously twisted nights in clubland history, most famously at Jackie 60, their long-running Tuesday weekly.

Jackie ran from 1990-99, founded by Chi Chi, Johnny, fashion designer and dominatrix Kitty Boots and dancer/choreographer Richard Move, with Pyramid Club legend Hattie Hathaway joining in its later years. With a devoted crowd adhering to the detailed xeroxed themes, the night was so successful that in 1994 Johnny and Chi-Chi were able to buy the building that housed it, renaming it Mother.

Do The Jackie Hustle: Chi Chi and Johnny and friends pose to promote their 1992 single

Like many downtown club faces, Chi Chi was sparked into motion at the dawn of the ’80s by the Mudd club, where she worked the door. ‘Those early years drew me in and began my life’s path,’ she says, recalling the grittiness of the city, when she had dead birds thrown at her, and was even shot at. Mudd club was their ‘cradle of civilisation,’ where Johnny cut his DJing teeth alongside Justin Strauss and Anita Sarko. As he enthuses, ‘Punk was new, disco was new – DJing, scratching, rapping, breakdancing, graffiti – it was all new.’ Johnny quickly found himself spinning at many an after-hours, and from 1982 at Danceteria, and he had a dancefloor hit in 1983 with ‘Jam Hot’. After marrying that year, the couple’s clubland ambitions grew, until they debuted the Jackie 60 formula at 14th Street nightspot Nell’s.

Nightlife power couple: Chi Chi Valenti and Johnny Dynell, early ’80s

As well as the weekly Jackie 60, there was its spin-off, the annual Fleetwood Mac extravaganza, Night of 1000 Stevies, and spoken-word extension Verbal Abuse, which became a poetry magazine, Motherboards, set up as an online clubbing directory and archive, and from ’96 the flourishing sex-positive Click and Drag night, billed as a ‘cyber/fetish/gender-hacking’ party. But with the rampant gentrification of ’90s NYC, Mother found itself surrounded by the forces of money and dullness, and the couple made the brave decision to end on a high in 2000 rather than wait for the inevitable pressure from their new neighbours. Mother closed on the last Tuesday of the twentieth century, with all concerned proud that while the Dadaists’ Cabaret Voltaire in 1916 had opened the ‘nightclubbing century’, they had closed it. Frank Broughton

Through the noughties Jackie went on the road, and the following piece was written in 2005 when the club came to London as part of Arthur Baker’s Return to New York party.  

Taking Jackie Further, 2005

from Time Out London, by Frank

It’s no secret that in post-Giuliani New York, nightlife is not, shall we say, looking its best. Thanks to a resuscitation of the long-ignored cabaret laws, more than three people moving rhythmically can lose a bar its liquor license. Thanks to the new mayor’s puritanical anti-smoking rules, all sense of relaxation is out of the window, as nightbirds are forced to choose between their drink, which they can’t take outside, and their smokes, which they must. And most devastating of all, the accelerated gentrification brought about by the axing of rent controls means all the interesting, creative, warped or freakish people – all the different people, proudly incapable of holding down a nine-to-five – have been priced out of town. Today’s typical Manhattan joint has acres of interior design, a grave No Dancing sign, roped-off £200 tables, and a plague of identikit rich kids mewling into mobiles.

Given this atmosphere it’s great to hear that Jackie 60, New York’s omnisexual theatre of clubland provocation, and for a decade at the end of the twentieth century the unerring Tuesday end-up place, is still on its feet. Known for fabulous costumes, diverting performance, splendid music and above all, that rarity in clubland: intriguing ideas.

People wrote entire plays for Jackie 60, designed whole fashion collections, choreographed performances for its stage that went on to wow mainstream halls of culture, such was the creative energy it inspired. Jackie was a centrepiece for glamorous, decadent, thoughtful silliness, with drag, bondage, kitsch and sex never far behind.

Jackie lived (and occasionally died) on its elaborate weekly themes. How about ‘Santa Is Burning’, a Christmas vogueing spectacular; or ‘Backroom Bodega Beeper Boys’, or ‘Mermaids on Heroin’, or ‘Kittens With Attitude’ or ‘Fiddler In The Hood (The First Kosher Gangsta Musical)’. If you’re feeling a little mediaeval, there was ‘Jackie 1360 – The Dark Ages’, and at the other extreme, who could forget ‘Klingon Women’, with a dress code that included ‘Romulan formal wear’ and ‘Horseshoe crab foreheads’.

The club ceased trading as a weekly in 2000, forced out of its once grim meatpacking neighbourhood by clean streets, sushi bars and ‘yuppies with an angry sense of entitlement’. Since then the founders have had time to produce ever more opulent one-offs. ‘For the closing Wigstock, we did a complete Gilbert and Sullivan production,’ explains Chi Chi. ‘At Coney Island we took over the sideshow and did a club piece called Dreamland, based on exactly the kind of entertainment that would have been there in 1910. We did a Halloween night in a New Orleans wax museum, and we’re going back this year. We’re bussing people out from the French Quarter to this derelict ante-bellum plantation house.’

Jackie 60’s current events, titled ‘Jackie Further’ to distinguish them from the original club, are resolutely site specific. And so the London night, of course, is built around… Paris. Ever contraire, Jackie started its obsession with fin-de-siecle France just when mainstream America was rabid with Iraq-war-borne anti-French sentiment [France refused to join the invasion]. Johnny and Chi Chi persisted with the theme for Cabaret Magique, a weekly East Village burlesque soiree, and this is what they’re bringing us on Saturday. Ruling ‘big mama burlesque queen’ Dirty Martinez will perform, Kitty Boots and her House of Domination will give their split-knickered twist to the can-can, Johnny will be throwing French cafe music into the dance mix, and Debbie Harry, a Jackie regular (and occasional bartender), will drop by to join the party.

So start putting together your outfit. The (suggested) dress code includes ‘Twenties glamour, Full Evening Dress (Oughts through Forties), Montmartre Bohemian vs East Village Performance artist, Weimar homage or the ever-popular Moulin Rouge on Crack style.’

To get a flavour for the event, visit, the huge online community they’ve created in the last few years. Here you’ll find a catalogue of themes, photos, graphics and dramatics from Jackie’s long, inventive history, not to mention a vast living, breathing collection of peacocks, deviants and creative freaks. New York nightlife may be spluttering a little, but this New Yorkest of clubs is doing just fine. Frank Broughton

2005, Chi Chi Valenti

interviewed by Frank

I’m sure you miss doing Jackie 60 as a weekly, but it must have been pretty frantic coming up with all those themes. That’s a decade where you’re thinking of something pretty in-depth, every week. How long did it take you?
Literally, it would take at least three full days. We’d come out of one – I’m sure for people that do certain kinds of TV filming, it’s the same thing – we’d be completely dead the following day, and then start production for our next night the day after that. For instance, the whole place would need to be decorated. The new soundtrack, the costumes, it was incredible. There was a bigger team of people through most of those years than just us.

What was the process?
We all kept separate themes that we liked… We all had ones that were on our list. Kitty’s tended to be very punk or Bowie or something, and mine were like the really intellectual ones that no one ever wanted to do, and Johnny’s were really accessible and boy-driven. Occasionally one of mine would really take off. Night Of 1,000 Stevies was mine.

Three Stevies among a thousand: Miss Guy, Chi Chi and Jackie 60 regular Debbie Harry in 2005. Photo Jackie Factory

That was a long-running theme, the Stevie Nicks thing? It’s like Steviestock.
That’s still going on. We get a thousand people a year now. That has outlived everything. We’re coming up on our 14th edition of that. It’s going to be at Irving Plaza. That is something. I just really love her and thought it was a really sick idea for a night. I had no idea.

We did a night called Low Life, based on the Luc Sante book, which was totally fabulous. That’s the kind of thing of somebody reading that book and then saying, ‘Let’s do this as a theme.’ Maybe because that was up my street, because I love New York history and stuff. We did the whole Suicide Bar on stage, with the girls. Interestingly, the actual Suicide Hall building, 295 Bowery, right by CBGB, is being torn down by the city after this long fight. One of the tenants is Kate Millett, the feminist author. She’s on the floor that actually was the Suicide Salon, and before it goes down she wants to give it to us to do a Jackie, so that will have to be very impromptu, and right before the wrecking ball.

Johnny’s themes were more accessible. like when Adam Goldstone’s record ‘Up All Night (Won’t Make The Gym)’ came out, he had an idea to do a whole night of Chelsea queens and rebuilt the David Barton gym onstage. David gave us the towels to put on everyone.

There were a few themes where we always said, ‘If we ever do this, it’s been so long in coming that either the world will end or Jackie will end.’ One of them was the thing that started Martha, the dance series that Richard Move does, and that was the Acrobats of God. He kept saying, ‘Next year we’ll do it,’ and then he finally did it. It was his Martha Graham – he performs as her but he speaks as her as well… and then he has a whole company doing Martha-like dancing. It got so big he started doing it as a series when we opened the club as Mother. It got so big, his next performance after Mother was at the Town Hall. That was one Jackie theme that took years.

We still speak a kind of shorthand with each other that no one else would get. Having done all that research, having learned about all of that music, has been incredible for everything we do. But I would never want to go back to that. We did that production for a decade. And we did it for four years, while owning a full-time venue. We probably aged a lot in that time. I feel a lot younger now.

And the city’s changed so much. Without dwelling on the negatives too much, New York nightlife isn’t what it used to be.
And that’s really why we started doing something again, for the very same reason we started Jackie. We wanted to have a place to go… but our work was subsidised in the beginning by Nell’s. It began as a free series. We’ve been lucky that it’s still important to people that we do our work in New York, so we get help from people, because it’s not even the financial climate that it was when we started Jackie. It wasn’t great then, but so many people have left… they’re not drop-ins and they can’t just walk across town any more.

I was reading an interview you did when you closed Mother, and one of the things was that there was no longer the local audience that would come and understand what you were doing. You also talked of the animosity of the people in the new Meatpacking District, even though you were the spearhead of why that was a cool place to live.
I’m glad we did what we did. We had no way of knowing everything else that happened. So many people have totally lost their businesses. We got to make the decision.

Are there silver linings? Is there anything underground emerging to react against what’s going on?
The tremendous silver lining for us… After we closed the club, we started this big online community called the Motherboards. That’s been the silver lining. A lot of the work we do… like this enormous art show that we did in May, which took club-based artists – costume designers and performers – from all over the country, and they collaborated on this show of the visual work that was at CBGB for a month, and it was a whole big performance night. A lot of them had never met until three days before the show, when they started coming into town. We did the entire Major Arcana of the tarot, with people portraying different cards in tableaux, and they created digital work, costuming. There were about 50 people who collaborated on it.

That’s been incredible, even in terms of feeding events, because people are so spread-out, to Philly and other places, but they can just read that this thing is going on, come in with their costume and introduce themselves as a performer. So there are these levels of collaboration that are possible, and ways for people to reach us and reach what we are doing that never existed before.

For me, that’s been a big old silver lining. It doesn’t tie us into paying these insane rents, or mean that we have to be at the same spot every night. You bring people together online, then throw occasional events and bring them together in the flesh.

Even the smoking thing, even though that’s been devastating in general for nightlife, it’s actually been really great for us, because we’re in the East Village and people are regularly driving by and see me standing out there smoking and they’re like, ‘Oh, this is where the new place is.’

Where is the new place?
Tapis Rouge [now permanently closed] is on Avenue A at 1st Street. It says ‘Salon Prive’ outside. We found it because they have this huge African night on Sundays, and we would go past and go, “Wow, what’s going on here?” It’s a perfect size. It holds on two floors, maybe 300 people, so it’s half the size of Mother, but two distinct floors.

Does it have a dancing license?
It has a dancefloor, let’s just put it like that. There are really interesting things going on with that, and I’m very involved with that ‘legalize dancing’ stuff.

People are fighting that?
It really moved forward in June, especially by Legalize Dancing NYC, which is an umbrella organization I’m involved with, which also includes the original Dance Liberation Front people. All the different organisations that were doing it on their own kind of banded together. That’s been a help. Norman Siegel has been involved in our legal stuff, the great civil liberties dude. We’ve been banging away, meeting with City Council people, doing these events, drumming up the press. Then in June, really out of the blue, Commissioner of Consumer Affairs Gretchen Dykstra, contacted the group and said, “We’re doing these hearings about the cabaret laws, because we’d like to remove dancing from the cabaret laws. ‘Well, that would be OK.’

So, it would no longer apply against dancing? You could dance without a license?
In venues below a certain size.

Well, that’s what it was all about, anyway.
Sadly, anything over that size is Webster Hall, and has the money to get a cabaret license. So, they had these hearings and in the public sections of these hearings 60 people spoke, including me and everyone from ballroom dancers to the director of Summerstage, agents for DJs that had gone out of business because no one was bringing people to play here, record store owners who have gone out of business… Everybody was saying, ‘Here are the numbers, and this is not related to 9/11.’ That didn’t help, but Giuliani had already destroyed it.

Post-Jackie 60, what direction have you taken things?
For these shows, which are actually called Jackie 60 Further, it’s been a lot of one-off, on-site things specifically for the site we’ve done them in. We did the Siren Festival at Coney island, where we took over the sideshow for two hours and did a long club piece called Dreamland, based on exactly the kind of entertainment that would have been there in 1910. So, it uses all the elements – the MCs, Jackie’s DJing, the House of Domination, the costumes – but it specifically makes it for one place and one time.

For London specifically, we’ve decided to do Paris. Johnny [Dynell] and I are also doing a weekly series here called Cabaret Magique, and we’ve got this repertoire of French incoherent, pre-Dadaist influences for the performances. People think it’s insane to be doing a French-influenced night in New York, especially since it started during the [Iraq] war.

Because of all the anti-French feeling…
A lot of the music we use for that is in French, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek take on Frenchness, with lots of French cliches, like ‘Sexy Eiffel Tower.’ When we were thinking of what Jackie Further should do there, we thought it’s even weirder to bring Paris to London through New York. We always like to have that second twist in things.

You probably revel in being contrary, with this “freedom fries” thing going on.
We’ve always had close connections with Situationism and obviously Dada – this sort of bridge that we felt – and then, like a month before the war started, we thought, let’s actually do a French cabaret. This is more fun, because a French cabaret that you’re doing every week is great, but to take it one more step and bring it to London, I’m really curious to see how it goes.

What specific things can we expect?
Well, performance-wise we have several members of the House of Domination, and they’re going to do updates on the can-can, their own version.

The original was pretty risqué.
Well, they have the split knickers. We’re doing showgirl elements that are based on – not reconstructions, but definitely a homage to – the can-can costumes of Kitty Boots, who’s our fourth partner in Jackie and a legendary costume designer. We’re also bringing over a burlesque queen. I think she’s played in London before, she’s really incredible. Her name is Dirty Martini. She’s absolutely the best of the whole burlesque wave here, in terms of incredible reconstructions, being able to do all the physical things involved in burlesque.

There’s an enormous burlesque renaissance in New York. We were involved in seeding some of that, but there’s a whole thing that goes along with that other school of burlesque, that’s more like Frank Sinatra. It’s a little too straight, the ’50s, ’60s burlesque. So, even though Dirty is fantastic at that, what she loves to do, and we asked her to do, is step back. Our showgirl is much more tied in to the late 19th century and then 20th century, up to about the ’20s. Those are our references.

And this is what’s going on at your weekly night Cabaret Magique?
Yeah, and we have spoken word, and people do the shadow puppets that used to be done in Montmartre. It’s very retro, but picking out an incredibly wide range from, say, 1870 to 1950 at the absolute latest, so it’s not retro to one period. And even musically… Like, at Jackie, the way the dancefloor room always has a dance track, and there’s another room… There’s a lot of charleston, and Django Reinhardt and stuff like that, and you’ll actually see people doing the charleston. So that’s been fun, but we’re very clear about not wanting to re-do Jackie.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton

Take Back The Night, by Chi Chi Valenti, 1990

All who remember basement rooms or the promise whispered in afterhours stairways,

take back the night.

All who have lost their way to drugs or cures and all who have simply lost their nerve,

take back the night.

All who have grown up restless in a thousand sleeping cities,

only to come here and ask

‘Where is the magic city I have dreamed of?’

take back the night.

Take it back from mere attitude and return it to grand gesture.

Take it back from every futures trader yearning for a new life.

Take it back from sweater consultants and out of town investors.

Return it to ruined men with no feeling for the masses, and no stomach for the shameless sell.

Take it back from the understudies of understudies.

Take it back from little black cocktail dresses, and the girlfriends of near-famous men.

Return it to difficult women,ragers,top girls who blow smoke defiantly

and slouch in fashion’s face.

Take it back from gay-bashers and gay supremists alike,and return it to

lonesome cowboys and rock-and-roll fags.

Take it back from crusading police captains and self-appointed neighborhood saviors.

Take it back from vodka companies and crack dealers.

Take it back from New York Magazine.

We have heard it whispered every now and again.

Somewhere a monster is feeding that will raise its head angry and swallow

everything in sight.

Somewhere, angels wait in cheap rooms and lush apartments,

and even now they are dreaming.

Of a six o’clock dawn with the music beating down sheer voodoo and nobody ever again afraid of a disease. Take it back.

Of a great light returned to the city that never sleeps.

This light will burn away the usual well-placed spots and flashbulb radiance. Take it back.

Illuminating arches of perfect young spine on crumbling staircases,

Cigarettes held meaningfully as scepters.

And the grand march on that morning:

Glistening bleached blondes and righteous sissies

Boys with angel faces and checkered pasts

Exhausted painters/ Elegant junkies who fell off fire escapes too early

dreadlocked camel traders from afterhours black markets

the Teutonic diva who began with Madame Butterfly and ended up playing Camille

the obscure stars of super-8 movies and Times Square backrooms

Children so ancient at sixteen they seemed destined to die of old age

The fragile slum goddess who traded all her chiffon and fame for a gift of prophecy,

Kamikaze poets with tongues sharp as sacred hara-kiri knives.

At once they will rise out of restless beds and rush out secret doorways.

No press kits will proceed them.

They’ll come silently, by taxi, through the ruins of the night city, to a basement lost

to the sleeping world.

They will push past the doorway curtains

Back to a room where the real Loleatta Holloway is wailing and a baby Jean Harlow waits

in bias-cut satin just beyond velvet ropes.

They will roll down the rugs or sprawl carefully on couches.

Their makeup will be perfect.

They will take back the night.

Chi Chi Valenti, 1990

Originally published as the last page of the last issue of the original Details Magazine. Republished 1992 in Verbal Abuse #1